A More Directed Story
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
No one would accuse Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle of being more than it is. It's a stoner comedy that wears its motivations on its sleeve. "Have you ever gotten the craving for White Castle and felt like nothing else would do? So have we! Here's a movie about it." It's just a dumb, silly comedy that goes for exactly that style, catering to the demographic looking for exactly that kind of movie. It works, in an unambitious way, simply because of that.
It was also a small success, recouping a decent profit off of its tiny budget. Considering it really isn't expensive to crank out low-grade stoner road trip comedies, cranking out a low-grade stoner sequel seemed like just as profitable of a plan. And so, four years after the first film arrived in theaters, we had its direct sequel: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. And while the construction of the film is similar to the first -- the guys get into a sticky situation and have a series of adventures as they try to get their way back out of it -- the ambitions of the film are just a little bit higher. It's not just a stoner comedy this time around, but is instead just a little bit about racism and the heightened political climate post-9/11. Oh, and it's a love story. It's a bit of a mess, but I appreciate the swings the film takes.
The sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first film (like, immediately after, as in within minutes of that film ending). Kumar (Kal Penn) convinced Harold (John Cho) to go chasing after Maria (Paula Garces) when she takes a trip to Amsterdam. However, on the plane an old lady thinks Kumar (who is Indian) is a Muslim terrorist, and when she sees him bring out a bong to smoke, she immediately says he has a bomb. Three air marshals immediately take the two men under arrest, and a high-strung (and very racist) Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Ron Fox (Rob Corddry), immediately assumes the worst about the two men.
Assuming they're an ISIS agent working with a North Korean agent (this, again, despite the fact that Kumar is Indian-American and Harold is Korean-American), he has the two men sent to Guantanamo Bay. There they are almost assaulted by the guards before finding a way to (actually quite easily) escape the prison. With some help from Cuba refugees, they make their way back to America where they have to figure out how to prove their innocence. Their solution: drive to Texas and crash the wedding of Kumar's former flame, Vanessa Fanning (Danneel Harris), who is marrying Colton Graham (Eric Winter), who's father is a high-power member of the W. Bush administration. If anyone could clear their names, it's Colton. And thus the road trip begins.
Escape from Guantanamo Bay is an interesting take on the road trip movie formula, in largely part because the road trip doesn't technically happen until the second act of the film. Structurally the first act isn't that different from what comes later, as it too is a series of vignettes staring the two characters getting into different hi jinx. The key difference is that they aren't really on the road, and the impetus for their trip (going to see Maria in Amsterdam) isn't the actual plot of the film (that of trying to clear their names and prove they aren't terrorists). If you didn't see the title of the movie and took the start of the film at face value, the hard left turn in story could feel like something of a bait and switch.
Tonally, the film is different, too. Yes, it's still a silly romp across the countryside, but there's a more serious motivation to it. We aren't just watching a couple of guys try, and fail, to get to White Castle over and over again (which is, honestly, the shaggiest of motivations to string a movie around). Now we have a real impetus, a need for the guys to get where they're going because, if they fail, it's the end of their lives as they know it. That's a solid jump in the stakes, a way to raise the bar and actually get you invested in their story.
I think, honestly, the change in subject is a really smart decision. Despite this still being a crass and silly film (with plenty of dicks, vaginas, and boobs to go around), it's not the exact same story as before. Hell, there's barely even any pot smoking in the film (aside from the one time Kumar tries, which causes this whole mess). For a film about two stoners on a road trip, the stoner aspect is far less prevalent this time around. Instead of beating that horse even further, the film takes a different turn.
The film actually works to engage with its characters and push them forward as people. A major plot thread this time around is the strained friendship between Harold and Kumar. They're in this mess, as Harold points out, because Kumar couldn't wait a single plane ride to smoke up, despite flying to what was (at the time) the marijuana capitol of the world. They could have smoked all the pot they wanted once they arrived; Kumar didn't need to take a bong hit in the plane's bathroom. But because of that decision, and then not apologizing for it after, there's serious friction between the two guys. Their growth, and coming back together, motivates a lot of their scenes.
Kumar also gets a love story. His background, before he got into pot (and met Harold) is fleshed out, and we learn more about how he became the slacker he is know. He met a girl, Vanessa, who became the girl of his dreams. She was dating someone else as well, even as she fooled around with Kumar, but then she went off with her boyfriend, leaving Kumar alone (with a lot of pot), and that leads him to give up on trying. If he couldn't get the girl, why get invested in anything? But with Vanessa being a major player in this story, it also motivates Kumar to try and not only win the girl, but maybe be a slightly better person as well.
Story wise, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a stronger film. But I don't know if I'd call it a funnier movie. The jokes are more spaced out this time around, and I would argue that what skits we get are more obvious and more broad (than even the first film). There really isn't any subtlety to the writing. The scene in Guantanamo Bay involves the guards immediately trying to mouth-rape the two main characters, giving out the "cock meat sandwich". A party they go to is a "bottomless party", and the big gag is that the guy running the place has the hairiest bush ever. The guys meet a couple of backwoods folk who, in fairness, like a high-class life... right up until their cyclops, inbred child is revealed living in the basement. At every turn the film takes the easiest, and most obvious, jokes possible.
It's also weird to me that despite this being a film about institutional racism in a post-9/11 world, the film has absolutely no political stance at all. Colton betrays the guys eventually, but not for idealogical reasons (like he's a closet racist), but just because he's a dick that wants to keep Kumar away from his soon-to-be-wife. The inbred yokels are colorblind when it comes to the two leads, as is everyone else in the film outside of Corddry's Fox. Hell, even Fox is written so over the top and broad in his attitude that it's hard to view it as racism at all. And when the two guys end up accidentally meeting George W. Bush (played by James Adomian) -- you know, the president in charge when 9/11 happened and is, at least in part, responsible for much of the hate thrown towards Muslims -- he's a chill, laid back stoner who befriends our heroes. A film about Guantanamo Bay doesn't want to engage in any of its racial politics at all, and that feels like a studio-required cop out.
The one place where the comedy of the film really shines, though, is Neil Patrick Harris. Although the material given to him isn't that great (he's in about three scenes before his character is, quite literally, snuffed out) he still manages to sell it for all it's worth. His deadpan delivery at times is so good, and the moments where he gets to act like a deranged weirdo are even better. There's a reason, despite his character being dead here, that he comes back for the third film as well; it's just no a Harold & Kumar film without Neil Patrick Harris.
In the end, I do feel like Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a mixed bag. It's comedy isn't as good, but it does have a stronger story. It's a film where, if I was in the mood to watch all three films in a marathon, I'd certainly enjoy it for what it is. At the same time, though, it doesn't have enough solid comedy in it to make me want to watch it all on its own. I appreciate the swing the film doesn't take, it just doesn't managed to go far enough in the ways that matter.